How to get a great cover for your book
Before I tell you what goes into designing a good cover, I want to say something. First rule about designing a cover: Don’t try to do it just because you don’t want to spend money on a designer.
You’re not wasting your money. Editing is essential to insure your credibility as a writer, as well as to heighten the reader’s enjoyment of the story. But, before they see your amazing prose, they see the thing it’s encased in. Would you put a diamond in a sock?
No. You’d put it in a case. Sure, book covers don’t protect a book the same way a case does a diamond, but they protect something else—your credibility and your inspiration. Covers protect the effort you put into your book and display it like a case would a diamond. It’s your job to make sure you choose the best case you can. Creating your own is not wise unless you know design.
So, what’s the purpose of this post? Well, whoever you choose to design your book cover, or if you do end up designing it, it would help you to understand what guides a good design. These guidelines will change depending on the type of story you have, but use these general guidelines as tools so you can better identify a good idea from a bad one.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not a book cover designer. My designs are merely examples, and I am not claiming them to be professional designs. I have experience in design, however, and I hope to use those made for this post as visual representations of what I’m explaining.
No, I won’t design my own book cover. I will hire someone to do it because it’s their job. As a designer, I can’t say I’ll never design my own book cover, but as a still-learning one, I can still say it’s not happening for a while.
The first thing you want to consider before chasing your perfect book cover is what you know you want on it. Some stories have physical symbols like pendants, patterns, eye color, piece of clothing, shapes, etc. If you have one of these in your story, and it’s prominent:
- Do you want it on your cover?
- How do you want it portrayed?
- How big of a spotlight do you want it to have?
- What style do you want it to take—realistic, graphic cartoon, abstract, etc.?
- How will it compare to the rest of your story?
These answers will guide you toward the answer to your biggest question: What do you want your cover to look like?
If you don’t have a symbol that allows you to think about this decision, do you have a theme? The theme isn’t a physical aspect of a cover’s design, but it will influence what goes on it.
If your book is about friendship, for example, you might not want one person on that cover. If it’s about love, you might want a softer tone to the colors and images on there. (Love, not romance or erotica) Whatever theme your story contains, let it influence what you want for your cover. Allow your cover to exude the elements the story holds. Don’t let an amazing design take your money if it doesn’t act as a good visual representation of your book.
I’ll only brush over this topic, but there are three kinds of design: stock, illustration, and graphic design. The last two involve working from scratch, while stock photo design include manipulation of existing art.
- If you have a photo you know you want in your cover (and you have the rights to it), a stock photo designer might be the best for you.
- If you are writing a children’s book, or if you simply prefer drawn/painted art, an illustrator might be the right designer to seek.
- Graphic designers are flexible because they can create anything out of nothing, and the best ones can make things look illustrated or realistic.
Again, I won’t delve further into the differences because I hope you have a general idea of what separates the three, but consider what kind of cover designer you want before you hunt for one. Few designers do all three, though they’re out there.
Point of focus
Some covers have a full image, others have a single object, and some have multiple objects or images pieced together to create a whole design.
None of those are wrong directions to go when designing a cover, but it’s easy to mess it up. It’s not hard to design a cover and put too much on it. If I have a book about ghosts who come out during a foggy night and a full moon, I might think I need some ghosts, a full moon, and fog. Those are important, right? And maybe I have two in particular who are ghosts of the main character’s family, and he keeps seeing them. So, I have to make sure both are on there. Wrong. No, I don’t. This is what I end up with, though, to be transparent, I didn’t try very hard to make it look good.
I’m sure you can tell, without the title text and such, that this is a big no. Granted, I didn’t try hard enough to make it look cool, but the point I’m trying to make is that it’s easy to want too much on a cover. With more work and good title font, I could probably move these guys around and make it look a little like a real book. But, it would be too busy, too crowded, and it would confuse a prospective reader.
You don’t need as much on your cover as you think
The weird thing about a cover is that it’s not your book, but it’s supposed to tell a story—kind of. Your cover isn’t your story, so don’t fight to put a blurb’s worth of information on it. The cover is supposed to intrigue a passerby so they’ll read the blurb so they’ll read the book.
Don’t stuff their eyes with as much info as you can. Just don’t.
Focus on one thing at a time
Let your cover single out a couple things, if not one, and highlight that. This doesn’t mean you have to have a black or white background with a brightly lit image in the center. Again, some covers have entire scenes on the front, and that’s okay. But, you want the scene to have enough contrast to draw the eye to one spot.
Think of a newspaper
I can go here. This is where my design experience is rooted, but the rules still apply. In a newspaper, the biggest image is usually where the reader will go first. Images are appealing. Words, less so. Next, the eyes typically go clockwise unless the design forces them a different direction. Yes, I know, there are different cultures that read what I would call backward. I’m talking about most cultures, most books, many eyes.
Bigger text and bigger, more colorful images tell the reader what to do without screaming at them. That is, unless you have so much on the page that the reader can’t figure out what is being demanded of them.
Ask. Don’t demand. Use contrast and color to determine the flow of priority on your cover. Pick what you want them to see first, and let the secondary and tertiary things slowly fade behind it or support it with lesser focus.
Every part of your book’s design must have a purpose. If you put too much on it, you’ll not only make your cover look bad, but you’ll hide the glowing gem that would have made your cover stand out. If you look at spam ads, some have too many colors and too many images, so they’re easy to overlook. It sounds like that wouldn’t be the case, but it is.
Our minds don’t want busy most of the time. They want focus, and you need to give it focus.
Some covers have one or two colors, while others seem to have every shade of red or most colors in the rainbow. Every color promotes a mood or theme, so keeping in mind what mood or tone you want to set when a reader looks at your cover will help you identify the difference between cool and unfit.
What is your story’s mood?
If I want a cover for a horror novel about a haunting that only occurs behind the veil of a late-night fog, it’s safe to say I don’t want a cover that looks like this:
This cover doesn’t look horrid—well, it kind of does—but it doesn’t look like a horror novel aside from the skeleton part of the guy’s face. Some might think this cover looks good. Maybe. But, the colors don’t match the tone I have for the book. Brown is a great color for mystery, filth, decay, or age. It’s good for stories about nature, too. This, however, looks like a failed attempt at a zombies and cowboys book.
It’s a no.
Fog. Death. Those are important elements in my cover. The title alone won’t stress the significance of the fog because titles can be figurative, and for my cover, I want the fog. It’s a dark tale. So, brown doesn’t properly show these elements. Quick, easy fix, and thankfully, it even looks better:
It’s easy to improve on my attempt. Actually, a good friend of mine, Joel Torres, did just that! I’ll show you at the end, though, so keep reading. Anyway, it’s understood that my second cover is a better portrayal of my story than the first. Did you notice something else in those covers aside from the color? The font, right? Good, because I’m talking about that now.
That weird wavy text I used in the brown cover added to the zombies versus cowboys thing, don’t you think? (I know the titles are different; laziness prevented me from changing the first one to the title I preferred later in my design endeavor for my pretend book.)
Well, disregard the fact that the wavy title was ugly. It didn’t contribute to the tone I wanted—this dark horror that I’m pretending to write. But, what about the other options for fonts? There are fonts that bleed “horror” that any author can use to make their cover creepy, right?
Does that answer that question? I know, I went a little overboard on how bad I made that look, but I’m not going to point out covers I’ve seen that closely resemble a similar use of that font. The Chiller font is one of my least favorites—Chiller, Bradley Hand, and Papyrus are common font choices that destroy a cover. There are a variety of sans serif fonts that do the same, but the former listed are the ones that sting the most. I’m not saying those should never be used, but they should…never be used.
I know there must be an exception somewhere, but let a professional designer figure that one out. I can’t use those fonts well, and someone without an eye for design can’t use those fonts well, so don’t use them.
Fonts need to match the cover. There isn’t a good rule to guide you through this. Look at book covers and stare at the fonts for a few minutes.
- What draws your attention first and why do you think that was necessary?
This part is important because one will dominate the other. In my cover, I wanted to downplay the title a bit because the image tells so much of the story by itself. The title doesn’t add enough to it, but it does offer information about the image when it’s read.
- Why do you think they chose that color font?
- What does the font do to the cover?
- If the author’s name is large, why?
This is usually because the author is well known. If you’re not famous, please don’t allow your name to be in nine-point font or anything. You need a presence on your cover. You wrote the book.
- What does the text hide that doesn’t need to be shown on the cover?
There are so many questions you can ask yourself, but in the end, the question is whether your cover looks good. Does it show the reader what you want it to? Does it do what you want it to do?
I’ve mentioned this throughout the post, but there’s something really important you need to understand.
Like it or not, readers judge a book by its cover. Many readers still let the first few pages or chapters do the talking, sure, but if a reader is skimming a bookshelf or an Amazon list, you want their eyes to pause on your book.
Make them pause because they were attracted to an element on your page or a cohesive design that appealed to their inner-perfectionist. Make them want to know what’s on the inside of your cover. You can’t do that if your cover is poorly done. Your book deserves a good cover.
Remember I said I’d share a good cover?
Joel Torres is a designer I’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with, and he agreed to give this theme a shot. I told you earlier I’d show you a professional cover, so here are his interpretations of my pretend book. Obviously, the title was fickle. It changed a lot on my end. That’s another tip. Make sure you know what you want your book title to be.
Use these tips to help you decide what design you might want for your book. Use them, if you are designing your cover, to at least help you understand a few things that must be considered when designing it. If I can’t convince you to invest in a professional cover, I hope to at least give you enough information to improve you cover a little. Who knows? You might create an amazing cover with or without the help of my post. I’m not saying because you’ve never designed a cover that you can’t design one. I know a few designers who still make me cringe with their covers, and I know a few authors who design little but surprise me with their creations. I’m not, for a second, saying you can’t design. I am saying, however, that you need to admit to yourself that you have limits, and consider whether design is one of them. You should want what’s best for your book, so give it that. Strive to give it the attention and presentation it deserves.
You should want what’s best for your book, so give it that. Strive to give it the attention and presentation it deserves. Don’t hide your incredible prose in a sock, not even a clean one.
Ask authors you know for designer recommendations. Search the web, look at portfolios, and don’t settle. Please do what’s best for your book. Do what’s best for you.
Write for yourself, but edit for your reader.
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